HAVANA (Reuters) - Baby jaguars and an intricately colored endemic boa known as the 'maja' are among the exotic animals at Cuba's national zoo that parents and teachers say provide unusually effective therapy to children with special needs.
Children pet the jaguars and play with their paws, stroke the cool, moist skin of snakes and give milk to a zebu cow as part of a program aimed at helping those with special needs overcome fears, zookeepers said.
"In the Americas we are pioneers in working with these exotic species," said zoo development director and animal therapy specialist Yaima Pueblas.
"Apart from breaking barriers of fear... it also encourages them to care for and protect the environment."
The program has proven a rare bright spot for children with Down's syndrome, autism and other special needs, teachers and parents told Reuters, during a particularly tough time on the Caribbean island hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic and economic crisis.
The program is free of charge in Cuba, where education of all levels is funded by the state.
"They are motivated to come to the zoo," said teacher Maraidis Ramirez. "In the classroom I already see that they are making progress."
Javier Lavaumena said the program had changed the direction of his son's life.
"We have seen great achievements with the children... they have made many changes in their lives, at school and at home," he said.
Cuba's National Zoo is a favorite attraction for Cubans, with 1,473 specimens of more than 120 species, including large animals such as elephants and rhinos.
(Reporting by Anett Rios, Mario Fuentes and Nelson Gonzalez, writing by Dave Sherwood, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)